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Catholic Social Teaching Affirms the Equal Dignity of All Persons

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By Andrew Greenwell, Esq.
12/15/2011 (7 years ago)
Catholic Online (

The equal dignity of all persons transcends these lesser categories

Stripped of distinctions by the mystery of Christ's incarnation and his boundless love, in the light of Faith a man can only look at other men as creatures of equal dignity.  The advent of the Emanuel is therefore the one and "ultimate foundation of the radical equality and brotherhood among all people, regardless of their race, nation, sex, origin, culture, or class." (Compendium, No. 144)

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - "Eureka" exclaimed Archimedes when by sudden insight he solved the question posed by Hiero the King of Syracuse on how to measure the purity of the golden crown he suspected his goldsmith had degraded by the addition of silver.  Another more important eureka moment occurred when the world through Peter exclaimed, "Now I understand that God shows no partiality." (Acts 10:34)

In this eureka moment, St. Peter recognized that all human persons wore the same unadulterated gold crown of human dignity, since they all are "creatures made in [God's] image and likeness."  God, St. Peter suddenly realized, became incarnate to save all mankind.  In the matter of redemption, accidental differences between men which seemed to divide them and distinguish them were of no moment in God.  The Incarnation and Redemption of Christ paid no heed to nations, races, tribes, castes, classes, or sex.

This is the original declaration of equal dignity of all humankind, a dignity that arises out of our solidarity as humans created and redeemed by God: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:28)  In the one fell swoop when God came down from heaven with the intent to redeem all mankind regardless of accidental differences, "something of the glory of God" shone "on the face of every person." (Compendium, No.144)  God dispersed any notion that there were fundamental substantive differences between and among men.

Stripped of distinctions by the mystery of Christ's incarnation and his boundless love, in the light of Faith a man can only look at other men as creatures of equal dignity.  The advent of the Emanuel is therefore the one and "ultimate foundation of the radical equality and brotherhood among all people, regardless of their race, nation, sex, origin, culture, or class." (Compendium, No. 144)

The equal dignity of human beings does not imply that such realities as races, nations, sex, culture, classes, or hierarchies and offices do not exist, or are unimportant.  The equal dignity of all persons, however, transcends these lesser categories.  Both the personal good of any individual person as well as the common good require that the equal dignity of every person be recognized.  Any State, any religion, any relation, any social institution, any custom, or any law which vitiates such human dignity is therefore to be abhorred.

Human dignity ought to encounter no boundaries as it recognizes only universal brotherhood among all men.  There ought therefore to be no disparity or inequality in dignity among men; rather, "conditions of equality and parity" are essential prerequisites for ordered relations among men, including even the international community.  Indeed, "the persistence of serious disparity and inequality will make us all poorer." (Compendium, No. 145)

"Together with equality in the recognition of the dignity of each person and of every people there must also be an awareness that it will be possible to safeguard and promote human dignity only if this is done as a community, by the whole of humanity." (Compendium, No. 145)

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church tackles the notion of equal dignity between the sexes.  It embraces the obvious reality that there are differences between man and woman.*  Yet it maintains the principle that the categories of man or woman are irrelevant in the area of equal dignity.  We can say man is in the image of God.  We can say woman is in the image of God. Since man and woman are both made in the image of God, they are creatures of equal dignity.

The Church therefore rejects any form of chauvinism between the sexes.  Man is not a being superior to woman such as Aristotle or Muhammad conceived.  Woman is not a being superior to man such as the feminist Mary Daly and others of her ilk appear to have conceived.  It is not a matter of superior and inferior, of better or worse, of more complete or less complete.

While she rejects any form of chauvinism, the Church does not therefore advocate egalitarianism.  Man is not woman.  Man is different from woman.  Woman is different from man.  The Church believes it a great error to limit the differences between man and woman to biological apparatus.

The difference between man and woman is basic, fundamental; it affects the very personhood of the man or woman, so we are dealing with an ontological category, not an accidental category. 

Personhood is not a sexless category.  For humans, persons are not androgynous or asexual; they have a sex and always will have a sex since, according to Christian doctrine, their souls will be joined together with their bodies.

Recognizing this reality, with respect to the relations between the sexes, the Church teaches a middle way between the error of chauvinism and the error of egalitarianism.  With respect to the sexes, the Church insists on complementarism between the sexes.

The "equal dignity" of the sexes does not mean "a static equality" between the sexes.  There is a difference of "specificity" among human persons which gives rise to the duality of male and female.  This difference of "specificity" between male and female, this duality of male and female in the human person, when tied to the sameness or oneness in "dignity" gives rise to a "difference in equality."  This "difference in equality" enriches society and one is "indispensable for the harmony of life in society." (Compendium, No. 146)

At first glance, the formula "difference in equality" seems like a contradiction.  How can things that are equal be different?  Aren't we forced either to adopt a notion of chauvinism by denying the equality, or a notion of egalitarianism by denying the difference?  Do we have either to scrap equality of the sexes or scrap the difference between the sexes?

The Church says no.  To understand this concept of "difference in equality" we must go to the notion of complementarity.  The notion of complementarity of the sexes is central to understanding the Church's social doctrine as it relates to the relation between male and female."  Woman is the complement of man, as man is the complement of woman: man and woman complete each other mutually, not only from a physical and psychological point of view, but also ontologically." (Compendium, No. 146)

Here the Compendium focuses on the ontological complementarity of being man and being woman.  The Church does not look at the different functions of man and woman, of doing, but rather she turns to the different ways of being between them.  "It is only because of the duality of 'male' and 'female' that the 'human' being becomes a full reality."

The Compendium struggles with putting this concept into words: "It is the 'unity of the two,' in other words a relational 'uni-duality,' (Italian: unidualitŕ) that allows each person to experience the interpersonal and reciprocal relationship as a gift that at the same time is a mission: 'to this 'unity of the two' God has entrusted not only the work of procreation and family life, but the creation of history itself." (Compendium, No. 147)

The relationship between man and woman is therefore not to be adversarial, whether in family life or society as a whole.  It is to a mutually supporting relationship, a relationship of reciprocal and mutual service in solidarity.

Since the dignity of men and women is something that is not earned, it follows that persons with disabilities share in human dignity irrespective of their disability.  "It would be radically unworthy of man, and a denial of our common humanity, to admit to the life of the community, and thus admit to work, only those who are fully functional.  To do so would be to practice a serious form of discrimination, that of the strong and healthy against the weak and sick."  (Compendium, No. 148)

*From this point, I will use the word man not generically (i.e., Latin homo or German mensch) as is my custom, but specifically to man as male (i.e., Latin vir or German mann).  The word woman, of course, will refer to man as female (Latin mulier or German frau).


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law, called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


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